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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Poverty and the Law

Examples of poor clients who have been denied justice

Redundancy Practice as an employment lawyer currently involves an increasing number of redundancy cases. Typical matters involve workers who have been made redundant, or threatened with redundancy. They have families to support and mortgages to pay. They have no wish to spend their limited savings on lawyers’ fees. The law relating to redundancy is complex, and it is very difficult for redundant workers to be able to pay to discover the extent of their rights or the possibility of enforcing those rights.

Homelessness Money is the key factor leading to the repossession of homes and the eviction of families. The non-payment of rent or mortgage instalments, purely a financial issue, is the basis for legally-enforced homelessness, for putting families in the street.

Personal injury • A litigant in person, seriously injured in a workplace accident, not a member of a trade union, living on borrowed money, was told by a judge that he had plunged alone into the icy waters of the English civil procedure system and that he was unlikely to float. He persevered, with some “pro bono” help, and struggled through the preliminary stages of his claim. A week before the trial, having coped with the bullying tactics of his opponents’ solicitor and barrister, he was told that the trial could not go ahead because no judges were available. He had organised all his documentation. His witnesses included a consultant surgeon whose fee was £1000 to give evidence. This fee was payable whether or not the trial went ahead. The claimant collapsed with anxiety and depression and was declared bankrupt. The case died. • A seriously disabled young man who was badly injured when a shop display fell on him. He had very little money and tried unsuccessfully to find solicitors who would take his case on a no-win no-fee basis. The local Law Centre was too busy to look at the case. He was forced to rely on a charitable lawyer who helped him through the preliminary stages. The owner of the shop admitted liability. Shortly before the case was due to be settled, the shop owner went out of business. He was not insured. The young man developed serious psychological problems. • A young man, disabled from birth with talipes (club feet), slipped on a patch of ice outside a shop. The ice was caused by water dripping from plants outside the shop onto the pavement. The young man suffered a leg fracture with complications because of his disability. He was unemployed and had no savings. He had no legal expenses insurance. He was not a member of a trade union. Legal aid was not available for a personal injury claim. After spending several weeks in hospital he was advised that he might never fully recover and might never be fit for work. He approached a firm of solicitors which refused to take his case on a no-win no-fee basis because the chances of success were too low. Two other firms refused to take the case. They asked for £1000 on account to look at the documentation. The local Law Centre could not take the case because it did not have the resources. Self-representation was impossible because of the nature of his disability and his injuries. All the textbook information on the common law of negligence, and procedure in personal injury cases, was simply of no relevance whatsoever.

Employment disputes • A waitress, a Russian woman living in London, who endured years of bullying in the restaurant where she worked, hoping to reach the age of 60 when she could retire with a pension. A year before her retirement age, she was sacked for being rude to a customer. Her local Law Centre would only act on a limited basis and would provide advice but not representation. She represented herself in an employment tribunal claim for unfair dismissal. Her claim failed. She had good grounds for an appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal but no money for lawyers. The appeal never went ahead. • A woman involved in an employment dispute who was told, on approaching a firm of solicitors, that she would have to pay £500 in advance for two hours’ work looking at the documentation in her case before the firm would decide whether or not to take on the case. For her, the figure of £500 might just as well have been £5 million. • A client who was dismissed from his job as a skilled worker, whose union refused to back him and who spent most of his money on an unsuccessful employment tribunal claim. His appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal resulted in lawyers taking his pension fund to pay their fees in a hopeless case. He lost his job, his claim and all his money. He now works as a shelf stacker in a supermarket.

Unpaid wages • Many contacts through the former free employment advice website related to unpaid wages. Typically, the enquirers were single mothers with unskilled or semi-skilled jobs who had been underpaid, or not paid at all, for weeks or months. They were in desperate financial circumstances. They had complained formally to their employers, without success. They were not members of trade unions. They had only a vague idea of their legal rights. Some might have contacted the Citizens’ Advice Bureau or other advice agencies. • The legal position – that there is a right to complain to an employment tribunal for unlawful deduction from wages – or a claim though the county court – has very little practical relevance for these workers. Consulting a solicitor is out of the question because of cost. Often, a formal letter from a lawyer on headed paper will result in payment. But the cost of such letters through the mainstream profession means that this remedy is largely illusory. • To some extent, the English legal profession can be seen as colluding with what can be described as a form of modern-day slavery in its failure to provide such workers with the means of redress. In recessionary times, these problems can only get worse, and lawyers will not help unless they are paid sums which are so far removed from unpaid workers’ resources that the remedy does not, in reality, exist. • The solution is a national network of community Law Centres, properly funded and staffed, offering free advice on an open-door basis. The cost of such a network is minimal compared with, for example, the amount of tax avoided by large corporations and the financing of illegal and/or unwinnable wars.

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